On this pursuit to “cook around the world,” we’ve come into our fair share of fairly confounding ingredients.
With a mysterious ingredient called padek, the recipe for a true Laotian laap muu proved to be no exception.
Padek? What could padek possibly be??
We eventually found the answer (as you’ll see here), but along the way we luckily chanced upon the true beauty of Lao food culture as a whole.
Laap Muu, Padek, Piep and Lieng
While researching laap muu and other traditional dishes, we kept encountering two very intriguing concepts paramount to Lao food culture: piep and lieng. Both social constructs are very prevalent in Lao culture and, even today, basically dictate how food and eating is culturally regarded.
Now, as a quick clarification, these are concepts in Lao culture but not in all of Laos. With more than 60 different ethnic groups in the country, it would be a mistake to imply that these are umbrella principles across the entire country. The Lao just happen to be the largest and most recognizable ethnic group in the country, especially in larger cities like Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
First, we’ll start with lieng, which represents a sort of “social contract.” It’s difficult to directly translate the word lieng itself into English, but the underlying principle is that each member of the community at large owns a part of a shared cultural responsibility to ensure that all members are well-nourished and taken care of.
The span of lieng goes beyond the nuclear family and into extended family, elders, friends, colleagues and everyone in between. What makes lieng so intriguing and powerful is that, as part of this altruistic obligation, members of the community might be called upon to forego their own meal in order for another to receive the nourishment they need.
We’re personally pretty hard-pressed to find any similarly selfless principle in the Western world.
Then there’s piep, which can be best described as a form of social currency. Piep can be very roughly translated to signify “prestige,” and it is an implicit system in which each individual knows their place and standing in the greater community. When it comes to food, the piep pecking order determines who – usually elders, men, heads of household or any combination of the 3 – begins the meal and has first access to food.
An infraction of piep, however accidental, can be a serious issue and what you could call a “party foul.”
What makes the interplay between piep and lieng so fascinating is around the proverbial dinner table. In order to easily adhere to lieng, your standard Lao meal will usually have more food offered than could possibly be consumed by all attendants. And in contrast with the Western “multi-course meal,” all food and multiple dishes (laap muu often included) is made available all at once.
But before you can simply dive right in, you have to respect piep. Beginning at the first tasting, you move sequentially down the “piep hierarchy” until it is your turn. Eventually through the later helpings of food, the rules relax a bit… meaning you don’t have to wait for every higher piep person to take before you. Just stay mindful, however, not to take food that might deprive someone with higher piep. You might be expected to keep eating as someone with higher piep eats… but eating more is never really that bad anyways.
Laap Muu and Padek
As you can imagine, we went down quite a tangential excursion to go from laap muu to padek to piep and lieng. We promise you that there was a method to the madness!
Laap as a preparation method perfectly encapsulates the core tenets of communal Lao eating culture. For the Lao people reliant on hunting and gathering from the wild (even to this day), the laap method of mincing meat offered a very efficient way for using all edible parts of the recent hunt and for ensuring that everybody could have some of the dish (see: lieng).
In addition to its efficiency, the word laap itself actually has an incidental second meaning. While the word refers to the act of mincing meat, there is also a similar word that means “luck” and “good fortune.” Offering laap at a meal for guests – both at everyday meals as well as special baci ceremonies – is a sign of respect and deference to the other’s piep.
What makes a truly authentic laap is one ingredient in particular: padek. Padek is a distinctly Lao ingredient of long-fermented fish pieces and rice powder/husks. It isn’t unlike the fish sauce that you might find in your local supermarket… except that it is far stronger in taste, is produced primarily in Lao homes for individual use, and is barely produced for export outside of Laos.
At least that’s what we found. If you happen to find any true padek to use, please let us know!
About the Recipe
For a true laap dish, there are several distinct components you need to have: your meat, padek (or an equivalent fish sauce), kheung laap, and khao khoua. Don’t worry… we’ll cover all these terms here.
First, you need to have some meat available to mince. Depending on the meat, you might see a dish called “laap X” or “laap Y.” In our case, since we’ll be using pork or muu, so our dish happens to be laap muu. The dish name helps as a straightforward indicator to let you know what exactly to expect.
Next comes the kheung laap. The word kheung means simply “ingredients,” so you have is a set of ingredients combined together to serve as the base for which the minced meat will get mixed. There’s plenty of variance here across recipes for what really goes into kheung laap, but you can expect at least to have some shallots, garlic, galangal (or ginger) and abundant use of chili peppers. Lao food, just so you know, can get really spicy, and much of it will come from the kheung component.
Then, you have the padek, otherwise known as the incredibly-elusive-found-only-in-Laos sauce. The padek will give a high proportion of the flavor to your laap dish, especially when you decide to make a raw laap variations.
Finally, there’s the khao khoua, or raw sticky rice roasted before being pounded into powder form. The khao khoua helps to give the laap dish a fuller texture as well as some added nutrients and flavors to the dish.
In terms of bringing the entire recipe altogether, it’s a fairly easy process. The best way to start would be to prepare your kheung laap and khao khoua ahead of time. For a traditional kheung laap, you might char your ingredients before pounding together in a large mortar and pestle or bowl.
Once you have both components created, you can focus on cooking and mincing your meat. If you’re eating raw laap, you can obviously skip the cooking part, but the mincing is pretty mandatory to the dish.
Once you have prepared and minced meat, you combine it with the kheung laap and the khao khoua and mix around to integrate the flavors well with one another. The final touch comes with the padek or fish sauce, which you add judiciously until you’ve found the right balance of spicy and sour for the dish.
As final touches, one very common thing to add to any laap dish are fresh ingredients. Adding herbs like cilantro or mint help bring more balance to the dish, which then can be served on a bed of lettuce.
Our Take on the Recipe
What made us particularly excited about this recipe – and really our greater exploration of Lao cuisine – was our source for our original reference recipe, a cookbook called Traditional Recipes of Laos (affiliate link).
Why were we super excited? All the recipes from the book came from a man named Phia Sing, who served as the royal head chef at the Palace in Luang Prabang (then the capital) in the earlier 1900s. In all our time here on Arousing Appetites, we’re not sure we’ve found as authoritative a root recipe source for the hometown cuisine as this one.
But we digress. Even while following the words of a master, we still made very few subtle adjustments to the recipe.
For one, the recipe in the book called for laap kai pa, or “minced wild chicken.” While we could have made our recipe with chicken, we had seen enough fantastic laap dishes elsewhere made with minced pork (muu) for us to decide to take our own version in that direction.
In the absence of reliable and good fresh galangal, we swapped in galangal powder and removed it from the kheung laap preparation. Instead, we integrated and mixed the galangal powder into the minced meat alongside the khao khoua. And in the clear absence of true padek, we had to use regular fish sauce in its place.
Finally, we added a bit of fresh mint to the end of our laap muu recipe in addition to plenty of shallots, coriander, spring onion and chilis. All the fresh ingredients made a delightful difference in the end, and we found that adding mint was a nice final accentuation to an already powerful dish.
All in all, exploring Lao cuisine and especially the world of laap might have been one of the most fulfilling experiences so far on this blog.
What type of meat do you use for your laap? Comment below!Print